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Aug 19, 2020

Why Populist Leaders Use War Rhetoric for All Things Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The use of war metaphor by right-wing leaders like Bolsonaro enabled the stifling of civilian and scientific voices.
Military police officers patrol the deserted Heroes' Square as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Budapest, Hungary, April 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo

The launch of the first fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccine by Russia, named Sputnik V, once again affirms the notion that muscular nationalism and militarism have been promoted over science and the public interest by many populist leaders during this pandemic.

Russia has a tradition of wartime medicine testing on soldiers, pressurising students to join military medical institutions and combining all this with patriotism and scientific soft power. This modus operandi has been replicated during the outbreak of COVID-19 to link vaccine production to the military-industrial complex in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not the only one who has attempted to manipulate the dates of the vaccine launch – he succeeded owing to the overwhelming control he exercises over the Russian scientific community.

From Trump to Bolsonaro to stalwarts of the Modi government, many have tried to push for a vaccine launch by a politically expedient date. Hence, Trump stated that the US would launch a vaccine before the presidential elections on November 3 even though pharmaceutical companies disputed the plausibility of the claim.

In India, the director of the highest body of medical research, the Indian Council of Medical Research, known to be a political appointee, declared that a COVID-19 vaccine made by India would be ready by August 15, 2020, India’s independence day. ICMR had to withdraw his declaration because of the outcry by experts.

Also read: Indian Academy of Sciences Calls ICMR’s August 15 Vaccine Deadline ‘Unfeasible’

This is only the most recent instance where regimes have tried to bend the rules of bioethics. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, hundreds of leaders have privileged power and politics over science, research and public health.

In the first few weeks of the outbreak, several right-wing populist leaders equated the public health crisis to a ‘war’. US President Trump described himself as a “wartime president” and asked people to “make collective sacrifices”.

Ugandan President Kaguta Museveni, in a speech on the outbreak of coronavirus, exhorted citizens and said, “During a war, you don’t insist on your freedom. You willingly give it up in exchange for survival. During a war, you don’t complain of hunger.” He also went as far as to say, “This is not a time to cry about bread and butter like spoilt children” and added “Let’s obey and follow the instructions of the authorities.”

Also read: Why German Leaders Refrained From Declaring ‘War’ on the Coronavirus

Museveni’s contempt for his fellow citizens further became evident when he said, “Here in Africa we are not fighting against Coronavirus… we are fighting primarily against social indiscipline of our people”.

A similar theme was conspicuous in Modi’s speech on March 25 when he said, “The battle of Mahabharata was won in 18 days, whereas the battle of the coronavirus would be won in 21 days”.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro invoked a militaristic analogy and called it a fight against the “invisible enemy”. Another populist head of state, President Duterte of the Philippines, employed the tactics used in his ‘war on drugs’ to fight the coronavirus and arrested 76,000 people for violating lockdown rules and used the military police.

A woman passes by a graffiti with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a person depicting the coronavirus pulling a rope against health workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 10, 2020. The graffiti reads:”Which side are you?”. Photo: Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

These actions show the rule of force regardless of the rule of law and evade any sober discussion about medical institutions and how well equipped the system is to handle a public health crisis. The use of war metaphors by leaders like Bolsonaro and Imran Khan of Pakistan enabled the stifling of civilian and scientific voices and aided the replacement of technical staff with military staff. Two doctors monitoring COVID-19, including the health minister, in Brazil were replaced by generals as the country plunged deeper into the health crisis.

A clear attempt was also made by several populists to link this ‘invisible enemy’ to external and internal enemies. In the US, Trump gave an identity to the enemy as the ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘King Flu’. In India and some Southeast Asians countries, the spread of the virus was initially blamed on Islamic religious gatherings and the entire community stigmatised.

Also read: Why Is the Pandemic Likened to a ‘War’?

The idea of an external threat facilitated the closing of borders in many countries marked by geopolitical preferences. So Brazil closed its borders with Venezuela while many EU countries closed their borders for refugees. There was also the imagery of commander-in-chief heroism associated with states ‘rescuing’ citizens from hostile countries.

This rhetoric benefits the leadership, which contrasts external disorder with internal stabilisation and security promoted with the use of force and strict unquestioning disciplined subjects.

The use of militarist discourse in civilian life deeply impacts gender relations. Many leaders who portray themselves as ‘strongmen’ like Trump and Bolsonaro refused to wear masks. Bolsonaro claimed masks were worn only by ‘fairies’, reinforcing his homophobic and misogynist slurs. Needless to say, COVID-19 hit excluded people, minorities and women harder than others. But all these figures get drowned out amidst talk of war.

It has been established that such militaristic discourse justifies a higher expenditure on defense in place of better spending on health infrastructure and cleaner environment. In recent years, funds for many public health departments have been slashed as part of the neo-liberal cuts on public education. Moreover, such rhetoric diverts attention from the failure of regimes to support citizens during times of a health crisis. It belittles science and replaces it with misinformation. It privileges militarism over a civic democratic rights-based culture.

More than 84 states worldwide have used emergency powers during the pandemic by centralising power, violating civil rights, suppressing dissent, introducing harsh labour laws and ignoring environmental assessments for promoting oligarchic capitalism. As UN special rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aulain said, these ‘emergencies’ violate freedoms, are disproportionate and discriminatory. Clearly these emergencies need urgent reversals.

The incessant references to ‘war’ and an ‘enemy’ reveal just how much our leaders emphasise on war and emergency instead of health care and social needs. We have witnessed how these metaphors enable already authoritarian leadership to maximise control over citizens.

Also read: The Post-COVID World: Dragging the State Back Into Public Services

Mixing metaphors related to wars with COVID-19 and the ongoing health crisis does not bode well for . Speeches and action on health issues need to be humanised and imbued with care, empathy, support and solidarity.

Anuradha Chenoy has retired as the Dean and Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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